Middle East studies in the News
Academic Freedom or a Culture War? [incl. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Rashid Khalidi, MEALAC]
by Alberto Tiburcio
Barely a couple of weeks ago—almost strategically coinciding with the climax of the hunger strike affair—some Columbia faculty members issued a "statement of concern" regarding what they saw as President Bollinger's failure to defend academic freedom. The statement also accused him of adopting a partisan position on Middle East-related issues. Bollinger's unpleasant reception of Ahmadinejad and his stance against the boycott of Israeli universities were cited as examples of his alleged lack of neutrality. Almost immediately after, another group of professors issued a response in defense of Bollinger, refuting point by point the accusations expressed on the later statement. A quick glance at the demographics of the signatures in both letters shed some interesting data. The anti-Bollinger letter was signed by faculty members of the humanities by and large: almost the entirety of the Anthropology and MEALAC's tenured faculty (including recently tenured Nadia Abu El Haj), some historians, some prominent English and Comparative Literature professors, including University Professor Gayatri Spivak, and poet laureate Mark Strand. On the other hand, the pro-Bollinger letter included mostly people in the sciences: Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel together with a substantial cohort of the College of Surgeons and Physicians, decision theory professor Jeffrey Helzner, physical anthropologist Ralph Holloway, and mathematician Peter Ozsvath, to name but a few.
While this split between the perceptions of the people in the sciences and humanities may very well reflect hidden interests such as the struggle for funding, it is nevertheless preoccupying (to say the least) to see such a quasi-disciplinary division among the faculty members regarding their perceptions of President Bollinger's leadership and, by extension, of the desirable future of Columbia's administration at large. How can the faculty members of the humanities and sciences have such discrepant opinions on Bollinger's stance on academic freedom? One tentative answer could be the following: some fields of the social sciences and humanities are by their very nature more prone to be scrutinized by the general public. Middle Eastern politics, social affairs, and cultural issues in general become part of the public debate much more easily than Riemannian geometry or astrophysics. As a consequence of this, people who write on such public (or publicizable) topics are more likely to end up becoming, often against their will, public figures and even objects of controversy. By contrast, despite sciences' direct and indirect influence in our daily lives, scientists themselves are rarely talked about in the mass media, and when they do appear in the media, they are consulted to give authoritative opinions on highly specialized topics, the understanding of which escapes the general public. The result of this is obvious: scientists are less likely to be publicly challenged than people in the humanities, especially when the object of study of the latter is a contemporary event, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; or something that is so present in our social lives, such as gender and racial relations. This is not to deny that social scientists and scholars in the humanities also possess specialized knowledge. Is Rashid Khalidi, for instance, more qualified to speak about the contemporary Middle East than the laymen? He certainly is, but the passions that arise from such topic, and its prevalence in the public debate make it more tempting for the general public to voice their opinion on the issue and, incidentally, on his scholarship.
Now comes the question: when does legitimate criticism of a scholarly work by external (non-academic) people end, and when does violation of academic freedom start? The answer is rather simple: external people, whoever they might be, are entitled to say whatever they want as long as they do not obstruct the tenure process or other substantial academic decisions. However, the pro-Bollinger letter recognizes the right of "outsiders" to intervene in some cases: "We agree that tenure reviews must be conducted exclusively by peer academics within the university and at other academic institutions. However, the university has responsibilities to its students, alumni , donors, and outside community. When non-academics and outsiders encounter or hear about what they consider inappropriate forms of teaching, allegations of intimidation or harassment, or the distortion of basic historical or scientific facts, they are justified in expressing, and entitled by the First Amendment to express, their objections. No university administration has the power to prevent such expression."
The underlying reference to harassment and intimidation is obviously the old and well-known MEALAC affair, on which I do not find the need to elaborate; however, I wish to call the reader's attention to another key point that this letter raises, namely the right of "outsiders" to intervene when they notice a "distortion of basic historical or scientific facts." Here again, humanities scholars are more vulnerable, given that the lack of a fixed scientific-like methodology in many of their disciplines makes it difficult to define what constitutes evidence, especially in fields dominated by social constructivism where the very mention of "facts" (more often than not between scare-quotes) is regarded as problematic. When the methodology is not so obviously standardized, it is more difficult to confuse sound evidence for discourse.
One can only wonder to what extent is it not the very nature of the humanities—or at least some dominating tendencies within some fields—that makes them so vulnerable to external criticism. If this is indeed the case, one would expect then that people in these fields should be more open to the possibility of being publicly questioned. At the end, one wonders whether this coming and going of statements for and against President Bollinger is really an issue of academic freedom, or rather something closer to a culture war between the—so to speak—scientific soul and the humanities way-of-thinking. As a student in the humanities, I would really lament if the later is the case, given that, as I see it, ours is a time when social sciences and humanities are in a most desperate need for a rapprochement with the scientists. Only through a dialogue with the sciences are we likely to be saved from the ghost of relativism and constructivism that has, in my view, handicapped our disciplines' capacity to offer more than a witty opinion in cultural issues and have a deeper impact in the quest for common knowledge. But this might be a topic for a whole new piece.
The author is a masters candidate in Middle East and Asian languages and cultures.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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